The Canterbury Tales: Transforming Culture?

Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales and they are considered late medieval British literature. At first glance, you may not think that Chaucer's tales are significant until you pay attention to the types of British Literature that preceded it. Early medieval literature was represented by works like Beowulf. This genre of literature is considered "epic" in that it focuses on big national themes, great heroes, and warring nations. The Canterbury Tales is a radical shift from the epic to the mundane.

Chaucer was born a commoner but lived amongst the noble and served in many prestigious roles throughout his life. He had the adroit and uncanny ability to move between the various classes of society. This is apparent in the pilgrims he describes on the way to Canterbury. Here are a few reasons you might consider picking up this medieval classic (a good modern translation is by David Wright, Oxford Press).

•    Chaucer’s Appreciation of the Wide Range of Humanity

Wel nine and twenty in a campaignye
Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle
In felaweshipe, and pilgrims were they alle
That toward Caterbury wolden ride.

Chaucer introduces us to 30 (if you include Chaucer, himself) pilgrims who are on their way to Canterbury where a great Christian, Saint Thomas a Becket, was murdered. The characters Chaucer introduces are described as “sondry folk”. We see people of both noble and common origin; moral and immoral, chaste and unchaste, and those with integrity and hypocrites. All have flaws and warts which are part of the human condition. In reading Chaucer you find a writer who is genial, not embarrassed by our humanity and not self-righteously judgmental.
Chaucer exhibits an ability to celebrate and make light of human foibles without waxing moralistic. Too often, Christians can take an antagonistic stance towards culture and the plight of humanity with a sanctimonious attitude that contradicts Jesus’s willingness to dwell with the lowly and sinful. Chaucer introduces us to ourselves and those with whom we live. His posture is one from which we can learn much.

•    Chaucer’s Artistic use of Comedy

In literature, there are two uses of the word “comedy”. The first is a reference to a “U-shaped” plot of creation, fall and redemption. We owe the Bible for this definition. The second has to do with the comedic; that which is laughable and humorous. This second use of humor is what The Canterbury Tales illustrates. The comedy in the tales ranges from the sublime (subtle irony) to the ridiculous (bathroom humor). Leland Ryken, in his book, Realms of God: The Classics in Christian Perspective, says this:

In Chaucer’s hands, for example, the comic vision encompasses an affectionate understanding of human nature and a compassionate reproof of human weakness. As we participate in comedy, we celebrate the richness, the diversity, and the failings of common humanity, recognizing our own place in that community. In comedy we are reconciled to what it means to be human, even though we might not like all that we see. Perhaps compassion is the dominant tone of comic literature (page 59-60).

What might the Christian high school student learn about how to love those who live very different lifestyles with different values? How might they be better prepared to interact with the human lot they will encounter on the college campus? Chaucer embodies something that can possibly teach us a biblical answer to this question. He does not do this through didactic propositional truth but rather through a story and the comedic.

•    Chaucer’s Focus on the Individual

For Chaucer, the individual was of utmost interest. Prior to this, much medieval literature focused on warriors, kings and battles that were the theme of epic tales. Chaucer rivets his attention on the individual; physical appearance, social standing and inner character. As you read each tale, you develop a unique bond with each pilgrim. The simple and common become complex and uncommon. Daily life and simple human beings become the focus of the story. This is utterly Christian. Frederick Buechner, in his book, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale says this,

The good news breaks into a world where the news has been so bad for so long that when it is good nobody hears it much except for a few. And who are the few that hear it?...They are the last people you might expect to hear it, themselves the bad jokes and stooges and scarecrows of the world, the tax collectors and whores and misfits(pp. 70-71).

Though Chaucer wrote well over 1000 years after the Scriptures were written, you find an indelible mark of the Gospel in The Canterbury Tales. This does not mean that Chaucer, himself, was a devout believer (it is hard to know). None the less, it is a refreshing display of the Christian faith shaping the culture for good.

Copyright © 2014 Timothy S. Lane

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Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at CCEF in Philadelphia, PA (Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation). Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches.  For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.